The evolution of Ellie

The creators of "The Last of Us Part II" discuss the transformation of the game's protagonist from a wide-eyed girl to a woman fueled by vengeance.

Note: This article contains major spoilers for “The Last of Us Part II” and 2013′s “The Last of Us.”

A man is shot in the chest and chokes on his own blood. A pregnant woman falls, fatally stabbed in her neck. They just wanted to reach Santa Barbara. Now they’re dead because a woman needed information. The murderer, standing amid their bodies, is not the little girl you remember.

Five years after the events of the first game, Ellie is cold, brutal and often merciless. Driven by revenge, the girl we knew from “The Last of Us” has morphed into something more sinister. Her optimism is dimmed, her humor muted — her pun book, once filled with jokes, has been replaced by a journal. “The Last of Us Part II” chronicles Ellie’s descent from innocence to match the darkness of the post-apocalyptic hellscape around her.

The death of Joel, her guardian and traveling partner from the first game, has set Ellie’s moral compass spinning as she struggles to find purpose. The game is not so much a tale about finding happiness as easing pain, and weighing the cost of that quest. While the sequel is centered on Ellie, the story puts several characters in her close orbit, each present at different, pivotal junctures in a painful metamorphosis.

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For those that remember Ellie as a girl, understanding her evolution over the course of “The Last of Us Part II” can be difficult. It’s a journey even those that created the game struggled to stomach at times. But that dissonance was precisely the chord the game’s co-director and writer, Neil Druckmann, wanted to strike in regard to Ellie.

“You’re going to have to do some horrible things to survive and to go on this journey of retribution,” co-director and writer Neil Druckmann tells The Post. “It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.”

Nor does it mean Ellie isn’t capable of change.

Hope

Ellie once thought she could save the world. ()

Instead, Joel damned it in her name. ()

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THE LOSS OF HOPE

By the time we see Ellie in the sequel, much of her optimism is gone, and the person closest to her stripped it from her.

When Part II begins, Ellie is 15, just a year removed from the events of the first game, but already we see a change. Co-writer Halley Gross says, in this hateful world, “nobody makes it to 15 innocent.”

Ellie’s appearance is evidence of the stress she’s endured. She still sports her signature auburn hair, her scar cutting through her right eyebrow and her Converse sneakers, but much of her look has matured. Ashley Swidowski, the lead character artist that conceptualized much of Ellie’s aesthetic in Part II, says she took “personal interest” in “pushing a certain quality in Ellie’s eyes, a somberness.”

“They’re big and wide in the first game, very stylized, and this serves to remind the player that she is, despite all of her bravery and strength, a child,” she says. “But after everything that Ellie has been through, age and trauma has changed her.”

In the first game, Ellie still saw wonder, even in her desolate surroundings. She’d collect comics or remark on the strangeness of teen magazines in which girls worried about what to wear or whom to date. That was not the world she knew, one in which a deadly fungus-based virus mutated people into murderous zombies (known as the “infected”) and surviving humans had defaulted to similarly primal kill-or-be-killed instincts.

Early concept art of Ellie from “The Last of Us” ()

As Druckmann says, it’s a “world that normalizes death and violence,” and Ellie experiences loss and trauma time and again. She loses her best friend Riley, before she meets Joel. Tess, Joel’s early traveling companion, dies at the very start of a journey that also includes the deaths of a 13-year-old boy, Sam, and his older brother Henry, who commits suicide shortly after Sam is killed by infected.

For Ellie, trauma also comes in the form of betrayal. A man named David, insinuated to be a cannibal and pedophile, at first protects her from an attack of infected. When she drops her guard, he traps her in a cell until she escapes and kills him. It’s a terrifying wake-up call, one that shows Ellie how she can be manipulated.

“With David, it was definitely traumatic,” Druckmann says. “And if every bit she experienced takes her on this spectrum, that was a big jump because of how horrible that was."

The event also solidifies Ellie’s relationship with Joel. When he comes to her rescue, he pulls her back from David’s body, rocks her in his arms and calls her “baby girl” — a nickname he called his late daughter. Their closeness provides the emotional grounding for Joel’s ultimate decision in Part I to storm the hospital and rescue Ellie before the doctors can use her (and her immunity to the virus) to find a cure. It’s also the source of Ellie’s emotional turmoil in Part II. By saving her, Joel strips Ellie of what she sees as her purpose: to save humanity from the virus.

Given her immunity, Ellie originally held out hope the world could be restored, that humanity could be saved through a cure, and she was the key to unlocking that reality. After Joel rescues her from the hospital, killing those that stood in his way, Ellie confronts him about what happened. He responds with a lie. Her final line is deliberately ambiguous: “Okay.”

“We, as the audience, knew that Joel was not telling Ellie the full truth and lost that relationship,” says Ashley Johnson, the actress who plays Ellie in both Part I and Part II. “And at the beginning of this game, Ellie’s already grappling with that.”

Early concept art of Ellie from “The Last of Us” ()

In Part II, we see Ellie grow to age 19. Even as she and Joel find fragile peace from the infected in fortresslike Jackson, Wyoming, their relationship frays. Joel’s lie has severed trust between them, as shown through flashbacks. In one such episode, when the two find rotting corpses of two kids killed by infected, Ellie mutters, “Too bad they weren’t immune."

Gross and Druckmann went back and forth on a lot of these flashbacks, trying to hit the right notes to convey the “evolution in relationships,” and to make sure they felt “incredibly authentic.” They needed to make it resonate when Joel dies, for both players and Ellie.

The game’s writers trigger Ellie’s evolution in Part II with Joel’s death. Druckmann says Joel’s death needed to be “gross, unceremonious and humiliating.” Enter Abby, a vengeful daughter of a man murdered by Joel during his hospital rampage. With Ellie pinned by her accomplices, Abby ends Joel’s life with a golf club.

Druckmann and Gross knew Joel’s death would draw an emotional response, particularly from fans of the first game. It also had a profound impact on the cast.

“That was a really, really tough day,” Johnson says of filming that scene. “I remember I went home that night, and I think that was the hardest I’ve ever slept because we shot that scene all day long. It’s not easy to be in that space for a full day.”

But it was for that same reason the writers knew it had to be Joel who needed to die and send Ellie on her journey. It was because of all he meant to her, both in life and beyond.

“He had this defining shift to her morality,” Gross says. With his death, her evolution begins.

Hate

Joel’s death brings a new beginning and sinister purpose. ()

As Ellie walks a dark path to avenge him, she learns its costs. ()

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THE RISE OF HATE

The formulation for Ellie’s turn toward darkness can be traced back to the year 2000. Then in his early 20s, Druckmann witnessed news footage of a crowd lynching two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. “And then they cheered afterward,” Druckmann, who grew up in Israel, recalls. “It was the cheering that was really chilling to me. … In my mind, I thought, ‘Oh, man, if I could just push a button and kill all these people that committed this horrible act, I would make them feel the same pain that they inflicted on these people.’"

The feeling faded, though. Eventually, he looked back and felt “gross and guilty” for his intense feelings. With “The Last of Us Part II,” he wanted to explore that emotional tumult on a didactic level.

“I landed on this emotional idea of, can we, over the course of the game, make you feel this intense hate that is universal in the same way that unconditional love is universal?” Druckmann says. “This hate that people feel has the same kind of universality. You hate someone so much that you want them to suffer in the way they’ve made someone you love suffer.”


“I landed on this emotional idea of, can we, over the course of the game, make you feel this intense hate that is universal in the same way that unconditional love is universal?”

Neil Druckmann, writer and director

Joel’s murder further complicates Ellie’s perspective of him. On one hand, he guided her and taught her and kept her safe. On the other, he robbed her of a life-defining choice and deceived her. Now she has no chance to reconcile those conflicting emotions. But in watching Abby and her Washington Liberation Front brethren kill Joel, Ellie finds a simple, guiding clarity: hunt and kill “every last one of them.”

Gross believes Ellie is driven not just by hate, but by guilt and a loss of purpose. Ellie feels it’s her duty to avenge Joel’s death, but she’s also tortured by survivor’s guilt. Being alive in this moment means the entire world continues a losing battle against a raging pandemic — one she could have stopped, had Joel not intervened.

Concept art from “The Last of Us: Part II” ()

“We learned in that last scene with Joel, [Ellie] says, if I died on the table, my life would have meant something," Gross says. “So now we understand in hindsight that this whole game, she no longer feels like her life means anything. … I think in one way it really articulates why she’s willing to risk so much [in Part II]. It’s like, ‘I can die for Joel.’"

As Ellie becomes hellbent on revenge, she changes. She becomes obsessed with how Joel approached the world, dispassionately and with a singular focus. Naughty Dog internally used the metaphor of addiction to rationalize Ellie’s evolution, and it’s partly why they chose a moth as the symbol for her tattoo, symbolizing death and compulsion.

About Ellie's tattoo

“There’s this idea of obsession and being drawn to a light and constantly pursuing this thing,” Druckmann said. He also explained that Ellie's tattoo represents the relationship she has with Joel and her former life.
Read more about the meaning behind her tattoo.

Joel saw “death and violence” as a “very pragmatic thing,” Druckmann says. “He doesn’t find much joy in it. And he’s not repulsed by it either. He’s kind of indifferent to it. Ellie, on the other hand, wants to be like Joel and is not like him at all."

This becomes clear as Ellie seeks information on Abby’s whereabouts, capturing a woman named Nora and torturing her to death. At the end of the scene, Nora is on the floor, coughing, barely able to speak as she inhales deadly spores into her lungs. Ellie delivers a final threat: Nora’s death can be “quick” or “so much worse.” Ellie has begun to change.

“There’s no pulling punches,” Druckmann says. “There’s no shying away from it. No matter how much we love these characters, to do them justice, to tell the story honestly, we have to show them with all their good and their bad.”

Love

Dina provides a light, even as Ellie descends into darkness. ()

But a need for vengeance and closure pulls them apart. ()

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THE GUIDING LIGHT OF LOVE

Following the encounter with Nora, Ellie appears broken. Her face is pale, and she shakes from head to toe. Ellie’s agony is clear through tortured body language and spare conversation as she recounts the episode to her girlfriend, Dina, who washes Ellie’s bloodstained, slashed and bruised upper body with a rag.

“I made her talk,” she tells Dina. It’s a justification for her actions, one Ellie needs Dina to appreciate and understand because of the role she plays in Ellie’s life. “I don’t want to lose you,” Ellie says to her.

“The [line] ‘I don’t want to lose you’ is something I kept latching onto, which is like, she now sees herself as less,” Druckmann says of Ellie’s mental state after killing Nora. “She understands these things are horrible and the people around her will judge her horribly for them. Despite this, she feels like she has to do them. Believing you’re righteous at any cost can be a horrible thing and can lead to you committing horrible acts."

Through Dina’s love and time with Ellie, players will recognize the girl they remember from Part I. Ellie glows around Dina, jokes around, serenades her and is sometimes painfully awkward, like when Dina asks her to rate their first kiss. Her bursts of momentary, carefree behavior hark back to who she was as a child.

Early concept art of Ellie from “The Last of Us: Part II” ()

“We needed somebody who could remind Ellie of who she used to be, right, pull that humor out of her, pull that intimacy out of her, pull that hope out of her, continue to be the sort of North Star,” Gross says.

Amid the ever-darkening twists of Part II, Dina serves as a counter-ballast, a guiding light that keeps Ellie from plunging headlong into blackness. In certain instances, their relationship balances against the weight of Joel’s loss, a dynamic the writers wrestled with, specifically right after his death.

“I actually tried to put in a ton of jokes,” Gross says, talking about the scene where Ellie and Dina first set out to Seattle. “She’s been on the road for three months with her girlfriend. And, you know, maybe it’s okay if we can feel that sort of dissonance. And it never felt right. It never felt like we were honoring the weight of the situation."

In her relationship with Dina, Ellie aspires for something beyond the hurt, but it’s hidden behind layers of grief and rage. Still it surfaces, evident in moments when Ellie shares with Dina that she’s immune to the virus, the evidence of which she’s kept hidden (an infected bite under a chemical burn and a tattoo) from the rest of the world. More playfully, it pokes through when Ellie makes fun of Dina early on about wanting a simple life in a farmhouse — part of her hopes for it too.

“As much as this game is Ellie living in the past, let’s tempt her by the future,” Gross says. “Let’s give her hope. Let’s give her family. Let’s give her a positive path to go forward with. We see her as this tough motherf---er that is not scared of anything. Let’s give her something that gives her vulnerability. Let’s see somebody who can really, you know, make her boots shake. Dina encompasses that.”

Glimpsing what her world could be with Dina ultimately conflicts with Ellie’s other guiding vision: her quest for vengeance. The two goals cannot exist together, however, and as their relationship unfolds, tension grows between the two.


“Let’s give her something that gives her vulnerability. Let’s see somebody who can really, you know, make her boots shake. Dina encompasses that.”

Halley Gross, co-writer

Dina and Ellie endure several waves of grief together, but they don’t navigate them the same way. Seeing a friend named Jesse die at the hands of Abby gnaws at Ellie, mingling with the pain of Joel’s death and her loss of purpose. She becomes sharper with Dina, calling her a “burden” when Dina confesses she’s pregnant with Jesse’s child.

“[Dina] just handles it differently,” Gross says. “She’s able to stay in the present.”

Ellie, however, is stuck in the past. This ultimately pulls them apart.

Near the end of the game, Ellie and Dina find refuge in a secluded farmhouse, where they build a life caring for JJ, Dina and Jesse’s son. It seems too good to be true, and it is. The hiatus from brutality is disrupted by Ellie’s PTSD, which forces her to repeatedly relive Joel’s death inside her head. Around this time, Tommy, Joel’s brother, shows up on their doorstep. He knows Abby’s new location, he says, and it’s enough to reunite Ellie with her dark purpose.

“Suddenly there’s a baby,” Gross says. “Suddenly there’s a family. Tommy comes around and knows how to just find that survivor guilt button."

This is an important juncture for Ellie, Gross says, and for viewers, who may ask what Ellie’s obligations are to those around her.

Gross lists off the questions to that end: “What does she owe to Joel, who made this choice without her agreement? What does she owe to Abby and the Fireflies? When again, she didn’t make that choice, but Joel made a lot of horrible choices in her name. What does she owe to Dina? What does she owe to Jesse, who died in this journey? What’s she owe to Tommy, who got hurt because he wanted to try kill these people before she got there?”

Though Ellie wants to love and care for her girlfriend, she leaves to pursue Abby. Ellie couldn’t fix the world by giving her life for a cure. But she has a choice this time, and she believes killing Abby will bring some measure of solace.

“[Ellie] struggles with doing the right thing,” Druckmann says. “When she finally breaks up with Dina, she knows it’s the wrong thing to do. And yet she can’t help but do it. There’s something kind of tragic and very Ellie in that.”

Forgiveness

In letting Abby go, Ellie forsakes her obsession for vengeance. ()

She reclaims her humanity, and her autonomy. ()

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A POWERFUL WAVE OF FORGIVENESS

Ellie’s search ends differently than planned. She finds Abby by the ocean in Santa Barbara, strung up on a wooden board and left to die. With revenge in her grasp, Ellie hesitates. It’s here, in this scene, where the story becomes clear in its final arc: This journey isn’t solely about avenging Joel’s death. Instead, it examines how love and forgiveness can prevail in the face of hatred.

As grotesque as Ellie’s actions have been, Abby has done considerable harm too. Yet, neither of them are defined by it, and both eventually wish to leave it all behind.

In a twist, the player spends much of the latter half of the game as Abby, playing through a story that humanizes her and those around her. She is not a classic enemy meant to illustrate the hero’s virtue and righteousness. She has a voracious hunger for revenge at the start, just like Ellie, but that ebbs when Yara and Lev (two kids running from their ultrareligious community known as the Seraphites) join her travels. Through these children we see Abby as caring, loyal and just. But we also see her flaws, and how her obsession for revenge has put pressure on her relationships. The complicated picture amplifies the tension as the final scene plays out.

Wrestling with her emotions, Ellie ultimately demands Abby fight her on the shore. As the two grapple, Johnson recalls the agony she felt in this moment when she played the game for the first time.

“Obviously I know the outcome of the game — but I just put my controller down and I was crying,” Johnson says. “I was saying, ‘No, just leave it. Just go. Just stop.’ You wrestle with a lot while you play this game.”

Johnson would get her wish. Ellie yields and lets Abby walk away with Lev. “Go,” she tells Abby. “Just take him.”


“Obviously I know the outcome of the game — but I just put my controller down and I was crying.”

Ashley Johnson, actress who plays Ellie

Druckmann, Gross and the Naughty Dog creative team had “a lot of conversations about the end of the game,” and why Ellie doesn’t kill Abby. Druckmann doesn’t think there is an all-encompassing answer, but instead a combination. There is no single character or moment that’s responsible.

“Is it because Lev is there, and she sees how much [Abby] cares for Lev? Is it because she finally understands that she is Abby in a lot of ways, and that it can be destructive?” Druckmann says. “Does she finally understand that this is her last bit of humanity? If she gives this up, what is left?”

During the final moments of the fight, Ellie holds Abby under the water, attempting to drown her. As this happens, Joel’s face flashes on the screen briefly. After the skirmish, a flashback shows Ellie and Joel standing on a porch.

“I don’t think you can ignore the fact that we coupled those two scenes together, which were not originally coupled,” Gross says. “That scene with Joel [originally] happened way back on the farm, where we learned that she was going to forgive him.”

In the scene, Ellie’s feelings toward Joel begin to soften when he accepts her as a gay woman. “You’re such an a------,” she tells him, in a frustrated but loving tone.

“She hated Joel so much for what he did [at the hospital], and yet was able to find a way to start forgiving him,” Druckmann says.

Ellie wants to hate him, but he’s “a good dad,” Gross says. It’s a legacy that he passes on to her, even if Ellie didn’t know it at the time of their final conversation.

“Joel’s love of Ellie helped shape how Ellie dealt with that fight on the beach,” Gross says.

Ellie is tested a final time, asked to consider if her soul is worth sacrificing in the name of revenge. Can she face who she’s become, or can be she try to be better?

“To really show this maturity, this big change that we’re going to get to in that very last scene of the game, where she finally lets go, you want to see all the moments that led to that, and so much of that is about Joel,” Gross says. “How Joel had a huge defining impact on who she is, even after he died."

From the outset of the series, Joel shaped much of Ellie’s life. He went to great lengths not just to protect her, but to understand and love her. But he also hurt her, and burdened her, in ways that can never be erased; he damned humanity rather than sacrificing her life for a cure. At the end of “The Last of Us Part II,” Ellie grapples with these truths. She leaves the beach having made a choice of her own after being robbed of many others. She shows restraint. Ellie’s decision to spare Abby is her way of forgiving Joel through her.

“She has a hard time, just wrestling with all these things that she’s done or that have been done in her name and again, she keeps trying to find purpose in it all to say, like, ‘if I just achieve this, it will all have been worth it,’" Druckmann says. “And I think at the very, very end, when she can finally do it, maybe she realizes it’s not worth it."

The subtext of the final scene demonstrates Ellie’s reclamation of her autonomy. While Joel’s death provided purpose, forgiveness gives her freedom. Her life is no longer overshadowed by his death, his lies and his love. Ellie is faced without a clear future, and one without family, but one all her own.

Returning to the now-empty farmhouse, Ellie looks at Joel’s guitar and leaves it behind. It signals a change, a surrender of vengeance, a proclamation of love and, ultimately, forgiveness.

She chooses to let go.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Neil Druckmann’s age when he witnessed footage of the lynching of two soldiers in the West Bank. He was in his early 20s, not his late teens.

Elise Favis

Elise Favis is a reporter for Launcher, The Washington Post’s video game and esports vertical. Before joining The Post, she worked as an associate editor for Game Informer, a video game magazine with a circulation of more than 7 million.

Images provided by Naughty Dog. Design and development by Joe Moore. Tattoo animation by Kolin Pope.

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